Experts

A Fae Apoc story prompted by @SkySailor.  Set in the post-apoc of Fae Apoc. 

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“Excuse me?  Excuse me, I’m looking for an expert?”

He looked like nothing you’d stop to look twice at, and most people didn’t even bother with looking once.  He was weedy, small, underfed. Fifteen years after the collapse of most of the world, he looked like – well, like it was a miracle he was still alive.

Nobody worried about him.

“What sort of expert, son?  We’ve got all sorts here.” The aging professor had not been quite so aging when the school had stopped being quite the same institution he’d been hired by.  Tenure was, however, tenure, and there weren’t that many universities hiring Labor Economics professors in this day and age.

Not when they were more worried with the simple economics of laboring enough to survive.

“What sort of experts?”  The weedy kid’s eyes were wide.  Maybe he’d never been inside a college before.  Lots of people hadn’t, now.

“Well, let’s see.  June over there’s an expert in law, especially Middle Eastern law.  She’s the one weeding the potato patch. And Karl, he’s an expert in Hotel Management and Food Science; he’s at the really big pot.  And then there’s Caleb, he’s one of the youngsters, but he’s pretty much an expert in pre-collapse history, especially in this specific area.  He’s the one over there who’s showing two others how to break down a – well, I’d call it a deer, but I’m not the expert in post-collapse fauna, and that looks like one of the weird ones.  Of course there’s me…” but the weedy kid had run off.

The professor sighed.  Perhaps staying on campus had not been the best idea, despite the ease of surviving those first few awful weeks.  One never did quite get over the habit of lecturing, even when nobody had paid one to teach in quite some time.

When Caleb went missing that night, it did cause the professor to wonder about the weedy kid, but the guy was long gone, and nobody else had even seen him.  He chalked it up to failing memory and assumed, as many did, that Caleb had finally gone up against some prey that fought back too hard.

💠

Caleb Bonadventure, former adjunct professor of history and currently Resident instructor in butchering local fauna, hadn’t expected anything out of his little walk in the forest except some peace and quiet.  The community living of the university was nice, yes, but sometimes a guy just had to get away, and when you lived in your office – well, okay, until the Collapse it had belonged to Professor Eisen, but the poor lady hadn’t made it through the second round of attacks and Caleb had won the straw-pull on that one – and ate in what had at one point been a chemistry lab, you didn’t have all that many places on-campus (such as it was) to go.

He’d recognized the skinny kid from earlier when he was hiking, but he still wasn’t feeling social, so he pretended he didn’t see him and hoped that the kid would take the hint and go somewhere else.

But –

-well, as he woke up, his mouth feeling like the Sahara and his head feeling like a drum corps was making their way through it, Caleb wasn’t sure what had happened next.  There had been a flash of light, he thought, and a sound like a helicopter, though he’d never thought he’d hear one of those again.  And then –

-and then nothing.  And now he was waking up.  He rolled up to get to his feet –

– and found a wall.  What? He touched the wall.  Wood. He blinked, reached for his glasses, and after feeling around both sides of the bed – walls – found them in a slim niche above the head of the bed.

Where was he?

His glasses did little to clarify his situation, although they did let him see that the bed was in a niche of very nice wood.  Past the foot of the bed was a compact bathroom – toilet, shower, sink, with about enough room to turn a very tight circle between them – but there was no illumination, save for some faint flickering from the gap between the two niches.

Caleb checked his attire – the same as he’d been wearing when he went to the woods, so that was something – and slid out of bed.  It wasn’t the most convenient set up, but he’d been sleeping in Professor Eisen’s office for the last few years on a bed they’d taken out of a half-collapsed dormitory, so he was used to inconvenient.  This bed didn’t squeak when he moved, at least.

Barefoot – his socks and boots were by the foot of the bed – he stepped out into –

He wasn’t sure.  He blinked a few times, the very dim illumination still enough to make his eyes water.  As his eyes adjusted, he could make out that the front of the room was what was illuminated – the whole front wall.  The side walls – one of them was covered in books. The other had a desk. A wide, lovely wooden desk full of writing implements and paper and – his breath caught – both a proper typewriter, it looked like an Underwood, and something he was pretty sure was an early-1990’s word processor.

There was, near the front of the room, a wingback chair and a small table.  He saw a liquor cabinet, one of his favorite tapestries from the university library, and that – that was it.

He made his way to the front wall.  It was glass, he realized, a whole wall of glass showing a hallway, with more glass across the hall.

Caleb swallowed and sat down very slowly in the wing-back chair.  He had seen this, he thought, back when there was still television.  He was in a zoo.

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When the lights came up, signifying, he guessed, the beginning of morning, Caleb was still in the chair.  He had paced the room a few times, drowsed weakly, and then paced again. It was too dark to read and he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, even if he did know where the light switch was.

Or if such a thing existed.  The bathroom worked – he had showered in the dark, and there was hot and cold running water.  The presence of a word processor suggested that there was electricity; the levelness of the light suggested that the hall was illuminated with some sort of electric – or magical, he supposed; he had seen dragons and flying women, after all – lighting system.

He walked to the front of the room, seeing, again, the hallway and the other rooms.  In the room directly across from him, a woman was stretching and looking like she was starting her day.  To either side of her, other people were moving around, doing the same.

She noticed him before the other two.  “Oh!” Her voice was surprisingly clear for the two layers of glass between them.  “They caught another one. What are you an expert in?”

“I’m sorry?”  Caleb blinked at her.  

“I’m an expert in architecture and building.  Jerome, to your left, is an expert in molecular biology.  To your right, Edna researches European history and post-Collapse communications.”

“Oh.”  He stretched slowly and walked to the glass.  “I’m, uh. Pre-Collapse history, especially in the northeast of what was America when I got the job.  That job. What is this place?”

“Pay attention, kid.” To the left of the architecture woman, a man walked up to the glass.  He looked maybe five years older than Caleb, if he was being generous. “It’s a collection of experts.  A library, if you will.”

“They say -”  That was a voice from the other side of the architect – “they got the idea from the old libraries of chained books.  I don’t know exactly – we see two of them, usually, but sometimes they mention a team or committee.” She was grey-haired, but, like the others, did not appear too old.  “The ‘doctor’ comes in monthly and lets us feel nice and young. The other one brings us things was ask for – books, that sort of thing, research materials – and the meals.”

“And of course,” said the man, “there’s the visitors.  They’ll engage you, sometimes for hours, on whatever it is they were here to learn.  I think it’s a university,” he added quietly. “But they call it the Library of Experts.”

Caleb looked around.  “You’re all… you’re all so calm about this.  Were you all kidnapped, too? Did they lock you all into these rooms, too?  What about sunlight? Fresh air? What about our lives?”

“If you want to know the truth.”  The architecture expert sat down like she was planning on this taking a while, cross-legged with her knees touching the glass, “I don’t know how they do it, but they keep me fed, they took care of the arthritis and the lingering cough, and I’m actually learning more than I ever have about my field.”

“But – okay, um.  But fresh air?”

“Once a day for an hour, on good behavior,” the man who thought he was a kid told him.  “It’s a really nice garden, and if it’s raining or snowing, there’s these little pavilions.”

“So.  Uh. What’s bad behavior?”

The grey-haired woman ticked off on her fingers like she’d had experience.  

“Not talking to people who want an expert.  Not coming back in when called from the outside.  Smearing your food on the glass – look, I was having a day.”

“She was off her meds,” muttered the one in the middle, which startled Caleb, until he remembered that she – if she was an expert – was probably as old as he was and thus clearly remembered the time before the Collapse.   “Once they figured that out….”

“Thank you for that, Eleanor,” the grey-haired woman snapped.  “Let’s see, wandering around in your underwear – I was having a bad day – shouting at the students.  They don’t really care if you study or write more papers as long as you discuss things with those who want to talk to you, but if you’re not doing anything at all then you suddenly have a treadmill in your little room and not using that is bad behavior….”

“It sounds like trying to get tenure all over again,” Caleb muttered.

A couple of the people around him laughed.  He couldn’t help it, he smiled.

“No pay, though – I mean, even after they’re happy with you.  But on the other hand, no expenses, and all the paper or disk space you want.  I’ve written three books.” The man who thought he was a kid pointed a thumb at the woman across from Caleb.  “Eleanor edited the last. Careful if you have her edit your work. She’s a mean one.”

“I’m thorough,” Eleanor corrected.  “Joan Dickens one level up, she’s mean.  Don’t go to her, either.”

“I – should I be taking notes?”

“You’ll figure it out soon enough.  Look, breakfast will be in half an hour, and half an hour after that, they open up the place.  They’re’ll be clothes for you in the closet, and if you don’t like them, there’s an order form for a couple different sorts.  And a book order form.” Eleanor smiled

“And none of you, you haven’t tried to escape?”

“Oh, we’ve all tried.”  Eleanor shook her head. “But you see, the thing they’re experts at – other than keeping us alive and healthy- is keeping us here.”

💠🔹💠

The original inspiration for this was a discussion of chained books on Mastodon. 

But the zoo from the Orville also provided visual inspiration. 

 

 

 

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